Today is Earth Day, as well as the 45th anniversary of the celebration of the planet and the many things she’s given to us. That makes this the perfect time to head outdoors, soak up the sun and sow some seeds. You don’t have to be a master gardener or even have a green thumb to reap the benefits of gardening. And in fact, digging in the soil can do wonders for your mood and your recovery.
Horticultural therapy — or the practice of gardening to promote well-being — has been used in a variety of treatment settings, including mental health and addiction rehabilitation programs. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA), gardening and simply spending more time in nature have been shown to have a slew of benefits, including:
- Enhanced mental function, including improved concentration
- Better achievement of goals
- Increased self-esteem
- Reduced stress
- Improvements in mood
- Decreased anxiety
- A greater sense of control
- Improved immune response
- Lower heart rate
If you work with a therapist or counselor who uses horticultural therapy to help you with addiction or another mental health issue, he or she will set specific goals for your treatment, explains Lana Dreyfuss, LCADC, SEP, HTR, BCPC, who runs horticultural therapy sessions for those suffering from addiction at Brightwater Landing, in Pennsylvania. For example, if Dreyfuss is working with a client who feels judged and criticized by his or her family and friends because of addiction, she might focus therapy on learning about, say, a red geranium and a dandelion. “The geranium is a flower; it’s beautiful and people buy them to put around their yard and give as presents, and the dandelion is a weed that people try to remove,” she explains. “Yet even though the dandelion has a huge stigma in our society, it has so many benefits … [you can] make dandelion tea … [or you can] add the leaves to salad for vitamin C.” This simple analogy, she says, helps those in recovery see that they have intrinsic value as people, regardless of what others might feel about their history of addiction.
How Gardening Can Help You
“Two of the most important benefits are connection and maintenance. Horticultural therapy connects you to something nurturing, something you can develop a relationship with; it connects you to others as well, so there is that social connection.
When it comes to maintenance, in the spring, I have to turn the soil over, plant the seeds, plant the plants, water them all summer … in the fall I have to take them out, rake the leaves, add the compost – year after year we in recovery also have to keep that maintenance; we can’t just expect to say, ‘OK I stopped using and I don’t have to do anything else.’ We have to keep maintaining ourselves in our recovery program … otherwise we don’t succeed. It’s also a great way to deal with anger issues that stem from addiction … [and] it’s a welcoming environment – there’s no judgment, no criticism; you can take the first steps of healing in nature.” – Lana Dreyfuss, LCADC, SEP, HTR, BCPC, Brightwater Landing
“Gardening is a great therapeutic help to recovering addicts and alcoholics. Working with living things inspires hope … [and] teaches patience and persistence — two qualities those in recovery need to learn.” – Tina B. Tessina, PhD (aka “Dr. Romance”), psychotherapist and author of “The Real 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the 12-Step”
“There is something about touching the earth, being in the sun and getting acquainted again with nature that has healing powers beyond what any physician, therapist or healer can teach. Horticulture and gardening therapy is a conversation with your most authentic self. If addicts feel sad, lost or hopeless, they can put their hands in the earth, plant a seed and know that life can have beauty and meaning again.” – Audrey Hope, addiction specialist and counselor
“There are rich metaphors [between horticultural therapy and recovery]. For example, when you weed a garden, you need to get to the root of the weed to really make a serious dent … If you just pluck the problem from the surface it will flourish below and get more and more difficult to manage. Horticultural therapy also puts [patients] in a caregiving position when they feel like they can’t care for anything, let alone themselves. They learn the nuances of caretaking … they are able to learn through discovering and taking risks (which builds resilience in the brain), with minimal consequences.” – Hilary Moses, LCSW, transition specialist, parent coach and co-owner of Solutions Transitional Support, LLC
“Recovery is all about growing. Growing a new way of life and weeding your garden of all the things that are choking your vital life force. It’s about starting anew. The earth has an energy that has a soothing and healing quality … In early recovery to be out in the fresh air, sunshine, working hard [and] sweating all of those toxins out is so much better therapy than sitting around a hospital room under fluorescent lights. Flowers, herbs and plants have a vibratory energy that people who are frail, sensitive, neurotic and broken can feel.” –J.T. Morgan, president, JT Morgan Sober Coach
“Plants serve as a mindfulness experience with regard to the awareness of tending to life and self and the connection with the earth (very Jungian). Plants growing serve as a metaphor for one that is ‘growing’ into recovery and building life. Horticulture therapy is a way to facilitate this in a structured and mindful way that maintains the same nurturing for continued growth and healing.” – Lisa Bahar, MA, CCJP, LMFT, LPCC, founder of Lisa Bahar Marriage and Family Therapy, Inc.
How to Start Gardening
If you don’t have access to formal horticulture therapy, you can still incorporate gardening into your own recovery efforts. “Even in a simple dish garden you have the benefits of nurturing and taking care of it and watching it grow,” says Lana Dreyfuss. “It’s not about how big the garden is or how beautiful it is; it’s the process of being involved in the garden that gives you that horticultural therapy experience.”
Dreyfuss recommends that first-time gardeners start with just a few small pots. “The tendency for people with addiction is to go overboard and then they can’t manage it. So keeping it simple will give you that encouragement. Grow a few pots of flowers … [or] make a small garden. Even if you grow a simple tomato plant and you are able to get tomatoes from it – to reap the benefits of what you’ve grown is huge.”
Here are some more get-started tips from Hilary Moses, co-owner of Solutions Transitional Support, LLC, who worked for nearly eight years at Pacific Quest, a horticultural therapy program in Hawaii:
- Pick your seed. Decide what (herbs, flowers, plants, vegetables) you want to plant and where (inside or outside or both). Start by thinking about what you like to eat or cook with, or even what kind of flowers you enjoy. Next, jump online to do a little research about what grows best in your area. Burpee’s Seeds Growing Calendar allows you to enter your Zip code to determine what will grow in your area, as well as if you should start your seeds indoors or directly sow them outside depending on your growing zone.
Make sure that when you purchase seeds online or at your local garden center or store that you’re buying 2015 seeds. If the seeds were kept in a cool, dry place they’re likely still viable; however, this depends on the species. Seed corn, for instance, is best used in the current year, while tomato seeds can last for more than four years if stored properly. Be sure to choose seeds that will mature before fall’s first frost in your area (if you get cold temperatures where you live).
- Learn along the way. You’ll need some potting soil, starter pots (for an indoor sow), seeds and “a willingness to discover and learn,” says Moses, who adds that “seeds can be bad; soil can be nutrient-deprived and bugs can win the battle [so] this project won’t come without the possibility for failure.” Be patient with yourself (and your garden) and recognize that it may take a little time for your thumb to get green.
- Pick up recycled materials. You don’t have to spend a lot on fancy seed-starting kits to begin your gardening project. Try using these everyday items if sowing seeds indoors: folded newspapers, cardboard egg cartons, eggshells, mini yogurt containers (punch holes in the bottom for drainage) and paper cups.
- Follow the directions. Fill your starter pots three-quarters full with moist potting soil. If the soil is too wet, the seeds will rot. Check the seed package, too, and follow the care instructions. Sow your seeds at the correct depth in the soil, which varies depending on the type of seed you’re planting. (Planting depth will be noted on your seed packet.) Be sure to keep the empty seed packets so that when it’s time to plant outdoors, you’ll have the instructions for how far apart to space your seedlings. Place the starter pots on a sunny windowsill and keep them lightly watered – never soggy or dry.
- Plan ahead. Have a plan for where you will move your seedlings once they outgrow their starter pots. If you have room for a garden plot, prepare the soil for transplant time by removing grass, weeds and rocks. You may also want to create a raised bed or use large planters that can sit on a patio or deck. Consider how much sunlight the plants need – full sun, partial sun or shade – to find the best location.
- Get your hands dirty. When there is no risk of frost and nighttime temperatures stay above 55 degrees, it’s time to transplant (or directly sow seeds, depending on your growing zone). Let your seedlings acclimate to the outdoors by setting them outside in their pots for a couple of days before transplanting. Then dig into the soil and organize your seedlings in neat rows, spaced out according to seed packet instructions.
- Create labels. Using a permanent marker, write the types of plants you’re growing on Popsicle sticks and place them next to the seedlings in the soil. Gently water once a day or as needed and weed throughout the growing season.
- Consider composting. Learning how to make your own compost is a way to enrich soil with real growing gold. Hint: Tomatoes and vegetables can grow well in a big pile of compost with very little time or attention.
Happy planting and happy Earth Day!